Program expands age for free cervical cancer screening

By Tamera Manzanares

At one time, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death in women. Now it is one of the most preventable and, if found early, successfully treated cancers. Cervical cancer deaths in the U.S. have declined more than 50 percent over the last 30 years and continue to decline. This is mainly due to the use of the Pap test, which can detect abnormal or precancerous cell changes in the cervix.

Despite these gains, the American Cancer Society estimates nearly 13,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. this year and more than 4,000 will die from it. Most cervical cancers are found in women who have never had a Pap test or who have not had one recently. Financial challenges could account for some women are not getting this important screening.

A Colorado program that provides free Pap tests to women who don’t have health insurance is working even harder to ensure women get screened. Women’s Wellness Connection recently expanded eligibility for cervical cancer screenings to women beginning at age 21 instead of age 40, the previous age requirement. “This removes a significant barrier to younger women receiving cervical cancer screenings, and we hope it will encourage more women to come in,” said Anna Lundeen, a physician at Northwest Colorado Health, which provides Pap tests through the program.

Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Most people who have HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. However some high risk types of HPV can become persistent infections causing cell changes leading to cancer.

The new Women’s Wellness Connection eligibility rules align with American Cancer Society guidelines that recommend women start Pap tests at age 21 and have them every three years to age 29. Starting at age 30, guidelines suggest women have “co-testing” or a Pap test and an HPV test. An HPV test looks for the presence of high risk HPV, helping gauge a woman’s risk for cervical cancer and guide measures to prevent it. Co-testing is recommended for women 30 and older because HPV infections in this age group are less likely to clear on their own. Guidelines call for co-testing every five years or Pap tests every three years.

Women’s Wellness Connection covers the cost of Pap tests and HPV tests as well as follow-up procedures that further examine and possibly remove areas of changed cells. If a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, she will be enrolled in a program to help pay for treatment. In addition to cervical cancer screening, the Women’s Wellness Connection provides women an opportunity to connect with a primary care provider and benefit from additional preventative health care and education. “Cervical cancer screening is among screenings recommended for women depending on their age, health history and other factors that could increase their risk for disease,” Lundeen said. “It’s important a woman has a health care provider that she feels comfortable going to with questions or concerns about her health.”

To qualify for free Pap tests through Women’s Wellness Connection, women must be age 21 to 64, have limited or no insurance, live in Colorado and be legally present in the U.S. Income requirements may also apply. Women may qualify for free breast cancer screenings if they are age 40 or older. Women’s Wellness Connection only covers testing ruling out cervical and breast cancer.

For more information, call 970-879-1632 in Steamboat Springs or 970-824-8233 in Craig.

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